Pocket billiards, as played at the highest levels in America, was, until recent times, a game primarily of skill and technique. The dominant game was straight pool. Games were usually played to 125 or 150 points. A shorter game which was also popular and required many of the same skills was eight-ball. The emphasis in both these games was on position play, not so much power. That has changed in the last few decades, as the dominant discipline has become nine-ball. The emphasis is much more on power in that game, especially the break shot. While some top players such as Steve Mizerak and Nick Varner played both straight pool and nine ball at the highest level, most of the other top players of recent times have skills much better suited to the power of nine-ball. In the famous movie on pocket billiards, The Color Of Money, Paul Newman's character, Lucky Eddie Felson, comments on this change in the film, lamenting the way the sport has gone away from its straight pool roots. The earlier Paul Newman movie with the same character, The Hustler, was all about straight pool.
Clearly, the greatest player in the straight pool era was Willie Mosconi, who won the world championship an incredible fifteen times. He might have won it even more except that he retired from competition, at least for awhile. Mosconi was from Philadelphia, the hometown of the most famous player in billiards before him, Ralph Greenleaf. Mosconi was always lavish in his praise of Greenleaf, though most of those who knew both players thought Mosconi was better.
Another great player from the same era was Irving Crane, who, despite playing against Mosconi and his imposing accomplishments, managed to win nine world championships himself. Crane was a very meticulous player. In the peak of his career, in the forties and fifties, there was no clock on the players, which was added in more recent years. Crane would often take a great deal of time between shots to make sure he had the correct patterns and shots. Irving Crane was still competing for official championships into the 1980's, when he was in his seventies.
Another player who won several world championships was Luther Lassiter. He was much more of a power player than either Mosconi or Crane, with a much better break-shot than either of them had and perhaps better than anyone else in his era.. He was world nine-ball champion several times and would have fit in very nicely in the modern power game.
While the players listed above were recognized champions, the competition of the sport was frequently more exciting in pool halls where there was much more money on the line than in any sanctioned competition. None of this was legal (every pool hall always had a sign saying no gambling allowed) but rarely was it stopped. Among the most famous players who made their living in this way was a man known as Minnesota Fats, whose real name was Walderone and was actually known as New York Fats until the movie The Hustler featured a character named Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason). Fats became a noted celebrity in the sixties, had his own television show in which he played a celebrity every week and remained a popular figure for several more decades until his death. How his game at its best compared to the recognized champions is not known, nor is it clear how good the other famous hustlers may have been.